There’s No Crying in History: Teaching the Holocaust

I don’t think my wife reads this blog all that often. But once we get past some self-analysis and a quick review of a terrible chapter in history, know that this post is ultimately a tribute to her and others like her who work with children with developmental delays.

I cry pretty easily. At funerals, understandably. When fictional or fictionalized characters die on TV shows and in movies, less understandably.

Sometimes those two even collide: the night before I attended the memorial service for a lovely woman at our church who died after a long battle with cancer, I made the mistake of watching the final episode of HBO’s John Adams miniseries, in which… well, there’s a succession of sad demises.

I don’t, however, tend to cry while teaching. It’s not so much that I’m one of those historians who misunderstands the art of history as a science and values objectivity above all else: there are moments when dispassionate analysis can inhibit understanding of the past. We should feel, and deeply, about the injustice, loss, suffering, pain, pleasure, joy, and triumphs experienced by the people we encounter.

But in some of the darkest of those moments, I’m very conscious how easy it is for even a minimally gifted teacher to manipulate the emotions of students. Take, for example, teaching the Holocaust.

Browning, Ordinary MenI teach about the Holocaust in several of my courses, but cover it most extensively in HIS354 Modern Europe, which I’m offering this fall (as almost every fall) at Bethel University. In the two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, we slow down the pace of our survey and spend entire classes on the rise of National Socialism, life and propaganda in the Third Reich, and the origins of World War II. Then once we get to the war, I spend almost no time on traditional military history (especially now that I’ve got an entire course devoted to WWII in the offing) and go straight into the Holocaust as an integral element of the war. We devote one day to the history of anti-Semitism, its place in Hitler’s worldview, and the development of “The Final Solution.” Then there’s a day in which we conduct a mock trial of three of the “ordinary men” from Christopher Browning’s famous study of that name. Finally, we close with one or two days on resistance, collaboration, and bystanding during WWII — particularly as responses to the Holocaust — and the troubled European memory of that time period.

Especially on the day devoted to anti-Semitism and the Final Solution, I try to be somewhat detached in my description. For one, the story is so compelling and terrifying that it requires no embellishment. At the same time, for two, Holocaust denial is sufficiently widespread that I don’t want to give any student any excuse to doubt my veracity — and American undergraduates being the people they are, they tend to trust “facts” and distrust “interpretation.” (I do show the relatively unadorned concentration camp footage, shot mostly by British soldiers, that was presented by PBS’ Frontline series as a special entitled “Memory of the Camps” — which likewise resists every temptation to manufacture pathos and simply presents the stark images with curt narration from actor Trevor Howard. Only the most deluded of deniers could be unconvinced and unmoved.) And third, even in this episode of history, I believe that historians in general (and especially those who follow a Savior who would pray from the Cross for those killing Him) ought to seek empathy even with the worst of sinners. So I fight hard the urge to rush into the pleasures of judging perpetrators (that discussion comes the next few days) and thinking myself a better person than Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich, or Eichmann. We seek to understand even that which we’d rather not know: e.g., how someone can think an entire population non-human and desire their extermination.

And while my voice often tightens, I can get through most of that class without tears. Partly because I’ve now taught a version of it nine or ten times, even as I talk I’m able to step back a bit, observe the students, and gauge better how they’re reacting to the material.

But there’s one moment halfway through that class that never fails to frustrate all my stoic ambitions. And oddly, it comes not when I’m talking about the Shoah, the intended extermination of the Jewish people, but when I touch ever so briefly on a lesser-known precursor to the Final Solution: the euthanasia program that came to be known as “T4.”

It began in mid-1939, when Hitler’s Interior Ministry began to identify newborns and infants with severe mental or physical disabilities. Then later that year authorities encouraged parents of such children to send them to special pediatric wards, where the children were given overdoses of medication or simply starved to death. This operation was judged so successful that Hitler and other perpetrators decided to expand it to juveniles and then adults with such disabilities. Headquartered at #4 Tiergartenstrasse in Berlin (hence “T4”), the adult program started with the sending out of questionnaires to public health authorities and officials at hospitals, mental institutions, and nursing homes:

Euthanasia Propaganda
Poster (ca. 1938) put out by the Nazi Party's Bureau for Race Politics... The caption implicitly asks the "New People" of Germany if they think it's worthwhile to spend 60,000 marks of their money on caring for the patient pictured - German Historical Museum

The limited space and wording on the forms, as well as the instructions in the accompanying cover letter, combined to convey the impression that the survey was intended to gather statistical data.

The form’s sinister purpose was suggested only by the emphasis which the questionnaire placed upon the patient’s capacity to work and by the categories of patients which the inquiry required health authorities to identify: those suffering from schizophrenia, epilepsy, dementia, encephalitis, and other chronic psychiatric or neurological disorders; those not of German or “related” blood; the criminally insane or those committed on criminal grounds; and those who had been confined to the institution in question for more than five years. Secretly recruited “medical experts,” physicians–many of them of significant reputation–worked in teams of three to evaluate the forms. (“Euthanasia Program,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Those selected by such experts were taken to one of six centers, where they were quickly escorted to shower rooms and killed with carbon monoxide gas. (The program was “in many ways a rehearsal for Nazi Germany’s subsequent genocidal policies,” that encyclopedia entry continues.)

This first phase of T4 ran from January 1941 until late August of that year. Hitler ended the program early after what was already an open secret was condemned from the pulpit by leading churchmen like the Roman Catholic cardinal Clemens von Galen, who preached the following in Münster on August 3rd:

Galen Sermon Text, July 1941
Text for an anti-Nazi sermon Galen delivered two weeks before he preached against the T4 program - German Historical Museum

If you establish and apply the principle that you can kill ‘unproductive’ fellow human beings then woe betide us all when we become old and frail! If one is allowed to kill the unproductive people then woe betide the invalids who have used up, sacrificed and lost their health and strength in the productive process. If one is allowed forcibly to remove one’s unproductive fellow human beings then woe betide loyal soldiers who return to the homeland seriously disabled, as cripples, as invalids. If it is once accepted that people have the right to kill ‘unproductive’ fellow humans–and even if initially it only affects the poor defenseless mentally ill–then as a matter of principle murder is permitted for all unproductive people, in other words for the incurably sick, the people who have become invalids through labor and war, for us all when we become old, frail and therefore unproductive….

Woe to mankind, woe to our German nation if God’s Holy Commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ which God proclaimed on Mount Sinai amidst thunder and lightning, which God our Creator inscribed in the conscience of mankind from the very beginning, is not only broken, but if this transgression is actually tolerated and permitted to go unpunished.

Remarkably, Galen went unpunished and the program ended. But T4 restarted more quietly one year later and continued until war’s end. Ultimately, perhaps 200,000 were murdered, including at least five thousand in the initial child euthanasia program.

This number, of course, is dwarfed by the six million Jews and several million others slaughtered elsewhere by Nazi officials and their German and non-German collaborators. But I’ve never been able to get through even a more cursory description of the euthanasia story without needing to pause to collect myself. Because it comes early in the narrative, crying there probably prepares me to continue on through the Final Solution itself.

Sophie Scholl posterBut that’s certainly not by design. I’m sure becoming a parent two years ago amplified my reaction to the mere thought of how T4 got started. (Two days later in the class I usually show clips from the German film Sophie Scholl: The Last Days, about the White Rose student resisters who were arrested by the Gestapo in early 1943. Just before the 1:08:00 mark of the film, Sophie has an exchange with her interrogator, Robert Mohr, in which she recalls the first time she heard about the murder of mentally ill children. “Every life is precious,” she insists after Mohr dismisses these as “unworthy lives.” That’s when I choke up yet again…) And I have at least two relatives with mental illness who quite possibly would not have survived had their doctors filled out one of those questionnaires in 1940-1941.

But what makes it hardest to maintain any kind of detached facade when I discuss these events (even now, as I write this) is that I married an occupational therapist who primarily works with young children with profound deficits (many on the autism spectrum). And so I can’t help but think that many of her patients would have had their lives snuffed out had they been born in Nazi Germany.

And so I find myself considering, again and again, an impossibly stark contrast. In its sinfulness, humanity is capable of deeming the most vulnerable life “worthless,” which makes me weep with sorrow. By God’s grace, humanity is also capable of the patience, compassion, and love that my wife shares with her patients each day of her professional life, and that makes we weep with joy.


6 thoughts on “There’s No Crying in History: Teaching the Holocaust

  1. As both a former student and one who has always been drawn to the study of the Holocaust, I greatly apprecaite this post. I was always curious what professors of my courses were feeling when teaching objectively the sensitive and sometimes horrific portions of history. I took Modern Europe with you, and very much enjoyed the class, and esepcially this subject very much.

    I was sitting at work, where I have ample time to listen to music or other audio, and I remembered the Podcasts that we listened to in your classes and how much I enjoyed them. I went searching for a link and came upon your blog via the Bethel History Department page on Facebook. I look forward to checking back often.

  2. In 1980, in response to the growing “Holocaust is a hoax” movement, a number of Holocaust survivors in Omaha felt that–as painful as it would be–that they must tell their stories. They began with a banquet to honor all liberating troops from WWII. The Rev. Norbert Johnson, Sr. Pastor at First Covenant, a private in the Rainbow Division and a liberating troop responded to the invitation. When they found out who he was, Pastor Johnson was asked to be the main speaker. At the banquet, trout was served as the main course which prompted Pastor Johnson to recall and comment, “The last time I had trout with Jewish friends was the day after we liberated the concentration camp. We (the soldiers) would throw a grenade in one of the many ponds. The concussion would bring many trout to the surface where we would roast the fish and would share what other food we had.” It was a bit of a “loaves and fishes” story. This was the beginning of a long and deep friendship between those Holocaust survivors and First Covenant. I was privileged to meet many of them, hear their stories and become friends with Rabbi Jonathan Rosenbaum. Teaching about the Holocaust is absolutely essentail.

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